Tears were in abundance in the eyes of Cadel Evans after his monumental performance in yesterday’s individual time trial. For the records Saturday’s dash against the clock was the penultimate stage this year, however it was the last opportunity to fight for overall supremacy. Final stage of the Tour is always a procession, time for the peloton to soak in the atmosphere and for a sprinter to shine.
Evans hit the road today aiming to turn around the 57 seconds deficit to Andy Schleck, and by the time he was done riding he had minutes in hand, comfortable to do a “Bolt moment” approaching the finish if he wished to. Ofcourse show-boating is not in the nature of the Australian who is often criticized for his introvert nature, but the emotions started flowing soon after Andy had finished his run.
Schleck Jr’s time might not have told the entire story, because he did give it his all. Maybe that audacious break on stage 18, followed by the toil a day later did have something to do with his relative lack of pace today. Such was the attack of Cadel Evans however, that mid way through it was clear that Andy was now racing for second.
He finished and collapsed in the arms of elder brother Frank, after all it cannot be easy to take in a third consecutive “second” place finish in Le Tour. In his own words, Andy had admitted of Friday “I’ve never come this close to winning the Tour.” Evans ensured it would not be a case of so near, yet so far, cause his lead is a very respectable 1min 34sec.
Despite his scorching pace, Evans was second on the day, HTC’s Tony Martin winning the stage in an incredible time of 55′ 33″ (avg speed of 45.9km/h). Not all that surprising considering the German had won the Critérium du Dauphiné last month on this very route in an comparable time of 55′ 28″. Pre-stage favourite Fabian Cancellara’s run was spoilt by a wet route following early showers (which dried by the time later riders had a go) and he could only finish eighth on the day.
Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen seemed to be on his way to earn his third, and Norway’s fifth victory of the Tour, until loose handlebars forced him to change his bike after the third time check, wiping his hopes of a competitive time. Philippe Gilbert too hit mechanical woes in his attempt, though the Belgian was never going to match the top times.
Probably the most aggressive rider on the day – apart from Evans – was Alberto Contador. The defending champion knew before starting that his two-year reign was over, but went for broke nevertheless. Fuelled by pride, he matched Martin’s splits in all time checks and finished third on the stage leapfrogging to fifth overall, a place ahead of compatriot Samuel Sánchez.
His tenacity though could not overhaul that enigma Thomas Voeckler. The man who stayed in yellow for the longest period this year had struggled in the past two days, and yesterday was no different. But as he has done all through the Tour’s three weeks (and maybe his career), he kept suffering and pushing to save his fourth place in the standings, a result surpassing all expectations.
Compatriot and team-mate Pierre Rolland also managed to hold on to the maillot blanc with an impressive performance to ensuring there would be French presence on the podium in Paris. His gutsy ride could not earn a place in the top ten (he finished eleventh overall), but the man from Gien has marked himself as a future prospect if nurtured well. Who knows, a couple of Tours later we might see Voeckler guiding him to yellow, and what a turn around that would be.
Talking of turn arounds, Evans is only the fifth man since World War II to overturn a deficit in the final time trial. Today he will have the honour of becoming the first Australian to win the Tour de France, the most impressive addition to his already long list of firsts for a cyclist from down under. He termed his performance today as ‘the ride of his life’ and it would go a long way in silencing his critics who often point to his lack of aggression.
In his moment of triumph Evans had one name to thank above everyone, his Italian mentor, the late Aldo Sassi. “Aldo said to me last year, ‘now that you’ve won the worlds (road race) you’ve made yourself a complete rider. You can win a Grand Tour, and hopefully it will be the Tour de France. For him today, to see me now, it would be quite something.” said Evans, adding, “We went through both good and bad. I had some bad moments in the last 10 years, but this makes the good moments even better.”
As for the Schlecks, they made history too, being the first brothers to finish together on the podium. It might be scant consolation – at least for Andy – but a proud moment for the family nonetheless. He has trained in wind tunnels in San Diego, taken special stretching exercises to improve his aerodynamic efficiency, but all that has failed to improve him in a dash against the clock.
History has taught us that to be the overall winner in the Tour de France, you have to be an overall cyclist. There is no doubt Andy is a champion climber, maybe comparable only to Contador, but if only he could time trial, he would have won the Tour. The bitter truth is that he can’t – and so he hasn’t.
There is nothing much to preview for the final stage of Le Tour. It’s a flat 95km ride to Paris in which all riders will congratulate the maillot jaune, as they enjoy sipping champagne on the road. Later Evans’ team BMC will have the honour to lead the peloton to the Champs-Élysées, and action will resume for a brief six laps of a circuit around the famous landmarks of the city.
The green jersey classification is still mathematically open, though barring a disaster Cavendish should sail through. However there is the matter of the stage finish, and every sprinter worth his salt would love to win in the shadow of the iconic Arc de Triomphe. For the leaders of the Tour it won’t matter. It will be a case of waiting for the finish for one, while the other will yet again be thinking what if…. So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Cadel Evans Cadel Evans – 83h 45’ 20” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Andy Schleck – 83h 46’ 54” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Samuel Sánchez Frank Schleck – 83h 47’ 50” Maillot Blanc – Pierre Rolland